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Typographic Widows and Orphans

| March 26, 2013 | 8 Comments

The problem that occurs in so many publications that I have seen, has nothing to do with the design, but is a problem of laziness and inconsistency. We call this problem “widows” and “orphans”. 


What are “widows” and “orphans”?

Those are the words or just short lines of text consisting of few words at the beginning or at the end of paragraph which are left all by itself at the top or bottom of a paragraph or column of text.

Not everyone will agree on the exact meaning of these words because someone can call “widows” “orphans” and vice versa. Different sources have different opinions about these names, and it is not important how you call them but it is important that you can recognize them and deal with them.

“Widow” is a line of text at the end of a paragraph separated from the rest of the text, meaning that this line is either in the next column or in the next page. It can also appear as an opening line of a paragraph at the bottom of the column or a page, thus separated from the rest of the paragraph.

“Orphan” is a word or few words in its own row that end a paragraph, thus creating too much white space between paragraphs.


Typographic widows and orphans.

Examples of typographic widows and orphans.


In this example above, you can see that “widows” appear in a few places. At the bottom of the first column there is one line of a paragraph that is continuing to another column. The problem is that the rest of the paragraph is only one and a half row long with another “widow” ending it. This paragraph is too short. As you can see there are many “orphans” on this page also. This creates bad geometry of the page because of the bad typesetting.

Also at the end of second column you can see bad placing of the subhead and one line of a paragraph that creates another “widow”, for the rest of the paragraph is on the next page. Again bad typesetting.


How to deal with “widows” and “orphans”?

There are few ways to solve these problems. One is by adjusting tracking and kerning options in your layout software and another one, and this one I prefer, is to work with your journalists or copy editors which can alter the text so that it fits.

Not always will you be able to track or kern the text in a way that it will fit. If you plan to track the text don’t do if for more than 15% + or -.

Paragraph ending with the orphan.

Paragraph ending with the orphan. Use your layout software’s tracking function to track the paragraph in negative value.

Last line in this paragraph is almost half column wide.

Last line in this paragraph is almost half column wide. Work with your journalists or copy editor to extend it at least to two-thirds of a column width.

Last line in this paragraph is almost half column wide.

Last line in this paragraph is filled with text almost till the end. This is good.


One way of preventing “orphans” to hyphenate into the next line is to prevent last word hyphenation shown in my video about hyphenation. If you have one or two words in the last line of a paragraph, you can adjust negative tracking for the paragraph, or you can ask your copy editor to add some words to the paragraph so that the line is longer than the half the width of a column. Two thirds would be ideal, but half a width will suffice. While you work you will see which method is faster and better, because sometimes you will not be able to adjust the tracking in your layout program and sometimes you will be left with only option and this one is to call your copy editor.

“Widows” can be solved in a similar way. You can track whole paragraph, since there will be more words to squeeze you can use smaller values and this will be easier than to squeeze few “orphaned” words. If the “widow” is one line in the next column maybe some paragraphs above can be shortened or tracked so that this “widow” can move back with its paragraph.


Always work on the final text copy before dealing with widows and orphans


There is one option in InDesign that deals with this problem, and it’s called “Keep Options”. Although it can help, in my experience it does more damage than good. It works well in one column layouts but if you have several columns on a page it will create lots of problems and shifts in the text which you will have to alter manually. If, however, your columns do not have to be aligned at the bottom than this option is great, but in a magazine or newspaper layouts where columns are aligned it will not work well.

The problem with “widows” and “orphans” is that they will occur everywhere and you will have to do much manual adjusting of each paragraph. This is best done at the end of the design process. After you finish the layout and after all text editing is over, then you can start adjusting certain paragraphs to get rid of these problems. Sometimes it can be done in your layout software but sometimes you will have to work with copy editor and alter the text so that it fits.

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Category: Typography

Comments (8)

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  1. A great way to deal with this, especially in a long document, is to create a character style which simply contains ‘no-break’. Then create a GREP style (in your body style) that applies the character style to the space in-between the last two words of a paragraph. Works a treat and I use it a lot.

    • Nikola says:

      Hmmm, really interesting approach. Never thought that this kind of correction is possible. I will give it a try in some future projects. Thanks for the tip.

  2. Matt Simmons says:

    I don’t believe this is the proper definition of what widows and orphans are. Widows and orphans only occur when the single words or single lines are cut off from a column or page, not that a paragraph ends with one or two words. That would almost be impossible to rectify, especially with very skinny columns. And you’d end up spending way too much time just focused on widows and orphans. But I admit that ideally you may not want to leave single words ending a paragraph. This wikipedia page explains it perfectly.

    • Nikola says:

      As long as I have been working with layouts we have called this “occurrences”, widows and orphans. It does not matter if they span across columns and pages or if they just end the paragraph.
      Dealing with widows and orphans in body copy is not such a big problem. The majority can be solved with proper justification settings in paragraph style.
      The rest is easily altered by hand, either by tracking text or working with copy editor to adjust it. It is just a matter of do you want to lay out your text properly or not.
      Regarding “skinny” columns, as you call them, like picture captions or product descriptions, it is not important to deal with orphans and widows since these kind of narrow columns contains short text which is faster and easier to read.

  3. Federico says:

    It’s not like that. There is a say that you learn while studying editorial graphic design “A widow has no future, an orphan has no past”. The widow has no future, so is the lonely word appearing at the end of a column or a paragraph. The orphan has no past, so is the lonely word coming from a previous paragraph but sitting at the beginning of a new column.

  4. Nikola says:

    Thanks for the info Federico. As mentioned earlier it is not crucial how you name these situations but how to deal with them.

  5. Jason says:

    I know people argue about this, but someone should really sort it out. They are 2 different and opposite irregularities in typography that shouldn’t be used interchangeably.

    A widow should always be on their own at the end. So you could have a widowed word, which would be a single word (or 2 small words) on its own on the last line of a paragraph. A widowed line, would be the last line of a paragraph that moves to the next column or page, where it is out on its own at the end of the paragraph.

    An orphan should always be on their own at the beginning. An orphaned word is rare, but can be caused by the second word, or the word itself, being too long for the column width, so it is the only word on the opening line, this leaves too much white space. An orphaned line would be when the first line of a paragraph starts at the bottom of a column or page, which means it is on its own at the start.

    I really don’t see what logic is used when someone calls a single word at the end of a paragraph an orphan. I’d love to hear other typographers views and reasoning behind it if they call them orphans.

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